June, 2016: Issue #1  -  Why Did the War Begin?
World War I changed everything. Let's change how students learn about how the War began.

Welcome to  Understanding the Great War . Each issue includes articles, lessons, teaching guidelines, and primary sources that you can freely use, arriving in your inbox on the third Tuesday of every other month. 
"Epochs sometimes occur in the life of a nation when the old customs of a people are changed, public morality is destroyed, religious beliefs shaken, and the spell of tradition is broken."
- Alexis de Tocqueville,
French observer and writer, 1848

No one can say precisely why it happened ... which may be, in the end, the best explanation for why it did. The causes of the War were as complex as the world it set aflame. To recall them is to enter a world of great and growing contrasts - visible signs of complex forces that seem destined to collide. It was a world on the edge of great change.

To understand World War I completely, you need to understand what happened before. The Great War YouTube Channel explains the history of the War chronologically each week. Be sure to watch all three of their videos on the beginnings of the War: Europe Prior to World War I: Alliances and Enemies, Tinderbox Europe: From Balkan Troubles to World War I, and A Shot that Changed the War: The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

From Lisa Adeli of the University of Arizona - Center of Middle Eastern Studies and teacher fellow at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, this is a lesson created for high school students dealing with big issues, such as nationalism, terrorism, and the role of individuals in history, and the specific events surrounding the outbreak of World War I.

This handout from the National World War I Museum and Memorial, written in the style of a breaking news alert, explains the events of June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

"We were conscious that we were skating on the thinnest of ice and that the peace of Europe was at the mercy of a chapter of unforeseen and unforeseeable incidents."

- British Prime Minister Lord Asquith

The Library of Congress provides a sampling of articles from historic newspapers on the assassination of the Archduke and the events that followed. All the linked articles and many more are searchable via the Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers digital collection.

Declaration of War - July 28 1914 - Document courtesy of Markus Habsburg-Lothringen - Kaiservilla. Bad Ischl
A handwritten draft of the telegram sent by Austria-Hungary Foreign Minister Count Berchtold to the Foreign Ministry of Serbia declaring war on July 28, 1914. It was written in French, the diplomatic language of the time. This marked the first time in history that war was declared via telegram.

This animated map from The Map as History takes viewers on a guided tour of how country after country in Europe plunged into war in 1914. 

This is a collaborative activity from the MacArthur Memorial that uses primary source documents to help students identify the countries involved in the war and the attitudes of these countries towards the war. Who blames who? And why?

World War I was truly a global war. Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914, expanding the scope of the fighting. Read more about their entry into the War in Opportunities Seized, Opportunities Denied: World War I in Asia, part of National History Day's WWI Resources , and also in this Washington Times article from August 23, 1914, courtesy of the Library of Congress .

Want more information on the entirety of World War I?

The American Battle Monuments Commission has created The Great War - A Visual History, an interactive timeline of the First World War, which will guide you through the events of the War, from the prewar period up through the end of the conflict.

Visit for more education resources that you can use free of charge and see the Understanding the Great War newsletter archive.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission also publishes the WWI Centennial Dispatch, a weekly email newsletter that touches the highlights of the centennial of the First World War and the Commission's activities. View the recent issues or subscribe now.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission and the National World War I Museum and Memorial are dedicated to educating the public about the causes, events, and consequences of the conflict and we encourage the use of these resources to better understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.

Partners on this project include:
The Pritzker Military Museum and Library is a founding sponsor of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.